"Stories care about people and help us imagine what other people endure."
An interview with American Author, Ryan Boudinot
Interviewed by Elham Nosrati
January 28, 2020
Ryan Boudinot is a creative American writer whose work been nominated for distinguished awards including PEN USA Literary Award, Washington State Book Award and Philip K. Dick Award. Ryan has been using emerging technologies including virtual reality, immersive audio and animation for storytelling and to connect with his audience. His book Blueprints of the Afterlife has been praised by numerous reviewers including The New York Times Book and The Boston Globe reviews.
Ryan is also the founder of Seattle City of Literature in 2013 that resulted in Seattle being listed in UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2017.
1- How do stories help us improve our mutual understanding as human beings?
Stories transcend identities. Our societies are structured to favor certain identities over others. We’ve made progress toward addressing these imbalances, and of course we can do better. I think stories are a method to help us empathize with the "other" and make it harder to wish violence or misfortune on people who may speak another language or worship a different god than we do. Stories take on this responsibility by providing an intimate, cognitive experience unique in art. They help us inhabit other conscious minds, of both characters and their creators. Stories are the art form that rose from the Theory of Mind, the ability, unique among animals, to imagine what others are thinking. Stories care about people and help us imagine what other people endure.
2- How have readers/audience expectations from a good book/story changed in 21st century?
This week a Barnes and Noble closed in my hometown, Seattle, after 22 years in business. In the morning, when I’m coming down Denny, I count construction cranes on the skyline. Lately I can count between nine and thirteen depending on my vantage point. Whether or not these cranes are erecting Amazon buildings, Amazon gets credited for changing this city's skyline and economy. They've done this in part by changing the way we buy and consume things, and the first thing they changed was books. I worked for Amazon for a total of five years over a ten year period, in customer service and editorial, and have witnessed their impact both from inside and from outside, as a writer. It's too vast a topic to tackle in an answer to a question in an interview, but I'll say that the way we relate to books and stories has changed because of Amazon, and more broadly, the technological advances of the past quarter century.
Books remain vital, but the book culture I experienced in, say 1997, no longer exists. Our dominant media paradigm is social media now. Books have been pushed to the margins, where they're quite comfortable being, I might add. Meanwhile, areas you wouldn't have necessarily associated with narrative are hungry for storytelling. I recently picked up a book called Narrative Economics by Robert Shiller that explores how economies grow out of the stories people buy into. The tech industry and the political world are rife with a hunger for storytelling, of establishing narratives that stick and go viral. So I think storytelling is alive and well, it's just bled into other facets of daily life that we don't traditionally consider narrative-driven.
3- You have been using different mediums for storytelling, please tell us about your experiences? any suggestions on this for new writers?
I think it's an incredibly exciting time if you're looking for new media in which to tell stories. We aren't as rigidly wed to particular delivery methods for stories anymore. We live in the streaming era when television, of all things, suddenly got good. Every media comes freighted with certain cognitive biases, influencing our brain chemistry in different ways. I'm especially interested in identifying technologies that have a positive impact on one's brain, encouraging feelings of social cohesion, non-violence, belonging.
In 2016 I started working with an R&D lab working on an audio platform that allows you to feel like you're inhabiting sound environments. This led me to some layman-level study of neuroplasticity and how our brains change as a result of being exposed to different media. Narratives, I'm convinced, will continue to penetrate the world in increasingly sophisticated, multi-leveled ways. I'm excited about what's possible using technology to return narrative to the orality from which they originated.
I'm also interested in open-world video games as a nascent storytelling medium. I ignored video games for most of my adult life until I started hanging out with VR industry folks. Then I learned about Skyrim, Fallout 4, Grand Theft Auto IV, and the Red Dead Redemption games. Yes, the core purpose of these games is essentially to kill things and take their stuff, which would seem to contradict my whole empathy thing. But what's more fascinating to me is how these games use artificial intelligence and ludonarratives to give you the sense of choice and agency in increasingly lifelike environments.
4- Which books have influenced you the most? Why?
In the past year, The Bhagavad Gita has been tremendously influential to me. I remember reading somewhere that JD Salinger used to read it every morning, for some period of his life. I think I've slowly begun to understand why. It's such a masterpiece as a work of literature, in the same way that Sgt. Peppers is a masterpiece album, with its exhilarating swings from the sublime to the mundane. Such a beautiful story full of so much love. These days I'm mostly reading Hindu spiritual texts. The Bhagavad Gita led me to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Upanishads, the works of Eknath Easwaran.
Previous to that, going way back, I'd point to the works of Gary Lutz, for pure language deliciousness, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins as a teenager for giving me permission to be weird, The Stand by Stephen King for the sheer scope and the fellowship of the characters. Also have to throw David Foster Wallace in there, who I still count as my favorite author.
5- As a reader, I know that readers’ life, breath and being can be among lines of a book that writers create. Now my last question from you: As a writer “What is writing to you?”
Writing is my best and longest-lasting friend. For whatever reason, I latched onto writing really early, about age five, and decided by the time I was six that I wanted to be an author. I realize this is kind of weird. When I was little it seemed like the way I felt about writing was similar to the way other people felt about their religions. I was able to achieve euphoric states of consciousness when I wrote, like the feeling that I was levitating. Meanwhile, I was fortunate to have supportive parents who encouraged me to pursue my passions and teachers along the way who provided the right kinds of challenges and encouragement to help me grow. I'm grateful for what my writing has brought me in this life, thankful for every sentence that comes my way.
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